The Youngest Renegade
Reprinted with permission from https://chimaera000.wordpress.com/
They say only one cat in a thousand has what it takes to be a ship’s cat. To travel the world, weathering bandits, storms, vermin, and obstreperous locals. To watch over the crew, steady the captain, and adorn the premises. Good ship’s cats are rare, and respected.
Great ones, now, great ones, they come but once in a fortunate generation. They are born, not made. They take nothing for granted. Not their lives, not their meals, not the safety of their ship, and not the adoration and respect of their crew.
As long as ships set forth, upon the sea, across the skies, throughout the stars, ships cats shall do their duty. And they shall tell tales of the great ones, that they may never be forgot; may never lack for worship. Bast protect them, always.
She started out small.
Mother had disappeared, likely perished while foraging.The three of them were left, mere scraps of fur. Too small to show their eyes, or hear properly. Too small to walk or hide. Too small to find food. But just as the cold sapped them, as they started to drift beyond life, someone picked them up, tucked the tiny ones inside a shirt, and brought them to safety. There was warmth, and light, and rich droplets against their tongues. They licked, and sucked, and lived.
The smallest opened her eyes, opened her mouth, and spake a silent miaow. Her eyes were enormous in that tiny face, but from the beginning, as soon as those eyes could focus, she began to learn. She learned how to suck food from the dropper. She learned to burrow under her brothers for warmth, and lay atop them for comfort. She learned that when the hands came, there would be food, or cleanliness, and caresses. Hands were good. One day, the hands lifted the three of them into a box, and they traveled.
When the box opened, the world was different. The lights had changed. There was a hum that sounded right through the metal beneath their paws. There was a sharp scent mixed with the crisp breeze that echoed through the rigging. They were aloft. These three had joined an airship.
There was much to learn. There were places very small kittens could not go. It became clear that if they had business, it should be neatly done in one of the dedicated boxes. When the klaxons sounded, the kittens were briskly latched into secure cages, where they could watch, and listen, but not trip busy crew, not get pitched hard into an unforgiving bulkhead. Afterward, once the crew moved leisurely, with equipment stowed, repairs in progress, the cages were opened and the kittens carried forth to join the crew in celebrating. There was good food, offered to kittens perched on knees, and beverages that often made them sneeze. There were many hands, stroking, scritching, dragging toys forth to entice the kittens into play.
They grew, and learned. Harry became enamored of the support aircraft, and joined the pilots’ mess. He loved the wind in his whiskers. Ernie, less daring but endlessly curious, became the engineering cat. He became particularly good at retrieving stray fasteners, and selecting the correct spanner to the task. Rennie, tiny Rennie, took on the whole ship.
She’d visit the infirmary, comforting the wounded and ill. She saw to it the galley was spotless. The mess boys came to dread the upturned paw with the tiny gleam of grease. She had a particular chair in the library, and another in the conservatory. There was a special padded section installed on the bridge railing, both comfortable and easy to latch onto when the ship jinked during battle. Rennie was still so small she had to be lifted up to her throne, but even Captain XO took strength from her presence. She could frequently be found in his lap of an evening, helping him in his research.
Following the Arkham adventure, Rennie was instrumental in identifying the lingering taint of affliction, and personally disposed of several dozen mice, and participated in the capture of a rat quite a bit larger than her, with glowing green eyes. They thought the ship was secure, although an unusually large percent of interns had yet to be accounted for. The airship turned for home.
It was the kittens’ first trip to the castle by the sea. Odd to be on land again, to look out a window and see the same bit of land. Odd to have rocks and turf under the paws. Odd to be in a building that did not hum along with its engines.
Rennie scampered up and down the long stairs from the mooring post. Her needle claws skittered a bit on the worn steps, but she kept a steady pace despite her aching muscles. Small didn’t mean helpless, she had decided. She would make the most of herself. On the shift change, one of the crew spotted her, scooped her up and perched her atop a rucksack, and they all went along, laughing, to the Zeppel Inn for homemade soup and homegrown whiskey.
The moon was new but bright, the ground silvered by frost, the light shimmering off the waves. Some of the crew staggered a bit, weaving three abreast as they hiked back to the castle. Rennie, still on the rucksack, looked into the trees, black against the moonlight, and saw a pair of green glows. Her eyes widened with remembered fear. She tried to call out, but her voice was still tiny, and the crew was singing loudly.
Plunging from the tree on silent wings, it came for her. The owl struck. The kitten had managed to wriggle into a hefty souvenir stein tucked into the pack, and the talons seized the vessel and carried it aloft, Rennie and all. The astonished crew shouted, reeling, but the bird was well away.
Up, up, over the rocky inlet, over the curtain wall, past the moored airship, under the eaves of the old keep roof. The ladder had rotted long ago, but the owl could come and go through the broken gable. And it could nest.
Rennie cowered in the depths of the beer stein. The owl tried to insert a foot, but the kitten clawed it away with her tiny needles. The head peered in, too wide to get the beak into play. Those eyes, those eyes glowed green with a coruscating shimmer. Rennie had seen that glow before. Had battled it in the eldritch mice, and in the giant, uncanny rat. She’d been very careful to get that carcass dropped, as the airship passed over Vesuvius. The mice had been worrisome, but manageable, and they’d all been loosely tucked into the nozzles of the Tesla, and cleansed.
But this owl, this was on the land. There were other animals about, as well as local spirits, and once this infection spread, it would be difficult to stop. She’d protected her ship, and her crew. Now she had to protect this land. And Rennie would have to stand alone.
The owl wrapped its talons in the handle of the stein again, and tried bashing it. The beer mug was too heavy, and even the mighty wings could not hold the owl steady on a single foot. But the mug careened into a corner and Rennie’s tiny body was bashed free. She hauled herself back into shelter, but one talon pinned her tail, and when the beak came at her, she wrenched herself free, leaving the tip of her tiny tail in the predator’s grasp. Bruised, bleeding, terrified, alone, Rennie thought of the Captain, calm throughout peril, and took a deep breath.
She would not fail her crew. She would not fail her captain. She WOULD protect her ship.
There were shreds of rotten wood about. Leaves, branches, debris from generations of nesting owls. Bones from fallen prey. Scraps of metal: iron support straps, bits of chain, the clapper of a bell, the jagged teeth of a trap.
If she could pry the trap open somehow, she might be able to lure the owl in. She knew her own strength was feeble at best, but Ernie had been trying to enthrall his littermates in the jaunty life of an engineer, and he had talked, at what she had thought was excessive length, about cogs and ratios and leverage. She needed a plan. And she needed to kill the owl before it could hatch its unholy spawn.
Rennie stayed in the beer stein, planning. The owl watched, occasionally testing its reach, but the kitten was secure. Eventually, the owl slept, and then went out to forage. There was nothing to be done about that now, there might be taint spread. But she hauled in an assortment of metal scraps and large bones, fencing herself off from more owl attacks, and began to craft a device.
She could hear the crew calling for her, and longed to call back, to reassure them, to seek help, but her voice was still so small. There was no point. She had to kill that owl.
It took three days. She could get water, but there was no food, and she didn’t dare eat the tainted eggs. She did smash in the bottoms to prevent them hatching. But she had to kill that owl.
Rennie threw herself against the lever, weighted with all the scrap iron she could collect. It was getting harder and harder, as her battered body protested, but she carried on. She persevered. And then, one last fling, she thought she could do no more, the trap splayed open. The creak of the aged iron sounded in the clear night air. And the owl came.
There was no retreat. Rennie could never make it to the beer stein. She had neither the strength nor the speed. She had only the gaping trap, and her tiny body, bound still with iron scraps woven into the straw that wrapped her. She could not retreat. All that mattered was the owl. Killing the owl.
Rennie dragged herself towards the center of the trap, wedging herself just behind the plate. The owl stood in the gap, wings spread, black against the moon. The eyes caught her, those wriggling green things behind the eyes, crawling in the depths of a possessed creature. She could not cry out, but she was born a tiger. She would be a tiger. Her back arched, her tail puffed, and she gave a defiant hiss. The owl lifted, huge shadow shrouding the tiny, terrified cat. And the owl struck.
The sound was horrific. It was more than the screech of an injured animal, more than the grating of ancient iron. More than the death cry of a predator, bested by prey. It was evil, deprived of empire.
Eventually, Rennie managed to push the trap, and the owl carcass, out from the roof. It landed at the foot of the keep, and the pilot who saw it fall pointed, up. They came for her then.
Rennie was carefully carried into the welcoming hull of the Renegade, surrounded by worried faces. The surgeon gently removed the enveloping straw matting and all the bits of metal–the cause of much debate among the Renegades for years to come–and treated the abused tip of the tiny tail. Warm milk, beef broth, a snug blanket by the fire, and caressing hands helped her back to health. Harry and Ernie were properly awed by her tale, and the three agreed to continue joint discussions about their respective ship duties, because cross-training had given her the ability to save the ship.
Renegade would go on to become a legend among ship’s cats. Commander of the Airship Renegade’s Feline Squad, she trained many of the cats later chronicled in story. This was her first great adventure on the ship for which she was named, but it was only the first. And anyone who thought to mock the missing tip of Rennie’s tail was soon set to rights by her crew.